The Taste of Conviviality: A Poem on Food by Leon Modena

By Andreatta, Michela | The Jewish Quarterly Review, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

The Taste of Conviviality: A Poem on Food by Leon Modena


Andreatta, Michela, The Jewish Quarterly Review


(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

IN HIS BOOK on the alimentary and culinary traditions of Italian Jews, Mangiare alia giudia (Eating Jewish style), the historian Ariel Toaff claims that Jews, rather than getting together to eat, eat to get together. Paraphrasing Umberto Eco's "getting together to pray or praying to get together," Toaff highlights the central place allocated to food in Jewish culture, particularly in festive and ceremonial settings, and to the meaning attributed to the modalities of food consumption- besides food itself -as cultural markers.* 1 Contextually, he attempts to define the intrinsic Jewish nature of food and dishes that Italian Jews used to eat and that were identified as typically Jewish by their surrounding Christian neighbours. In Toaff's book this goal is inextricably linked with the aim of reconstructing the historical cuisine of Jewish Italy, a sort of archaeology of food that places itself at the confluence of social and economic history, cultural anthropology, and religious practice. In the absence of Jewish cookbooks (the earliest by Italian Jews date from the nineteenth century), Toaff bases his work on a wide range of documentary and literary sources in which Jewish alimentary habits are incidentally described and from which details concerning the processes of food acquisition, preparation, and consumption can be grasped, such as collections of rabbinical responsa, epistolanes, travelogues, celebratory poems, early dictionaries and encyclopedias, communal books, and inquisitorial proceedings. Toaff thus draws a picture of a complex of habits, customs, and practices characterizing the food culture of the Italian Jews, whose identity is simultaneously created by the encounter of diverse Jewish eating traditions, the development of specific local habits, and the contact with non-Jewish alimentary systems. One of the sources that can be profitably added to Toaff's substantial and variegated list is a Hebrew poem on food by the famous Venetian rabbi and polymath Leon Modena.2 3

The composition, extant in Modena's autographic manuscript collection of poems,-' was first published by Simon Bernstein in an unvocalized edition and without systematic analysis of its prosodic features.4 Composed in Venice, probably in the early months of 1593, it was occasioned by the wedding of Asher ben Zerah, an affluent but otherwise unknown member of the Venetian community. Instead of conventional praises of the newlyweds it contains a description of the food supposedly served at the reception,5 a rather unusual format for a Hebrew epithalamium, although, as we will see, not entirely unprecedented. In a letter addressed to his friend Rabbi Gershon Cohen of Cologna, who at the time was living in Montagnana, near Padua, Modena refers to the poem in the following terms: "Speaking of poetrj', know that on the occasion of the wedding of a learned and wealthy man that was celebrated here [i.e., in Venice], at the request of my father-in-law, I wrote a few verses (ture éhif) on each dish that was served on the table.''6 In the continuation of the letter Modena goes on to describe, with evident satisfaction, some of the puns and conceits he crafted and inserted into the text. Modena's composition consists, indeed, of a mosaic of quotations from biblical and rabbinical sources, brilliantly arranged in order to sound irresistibly witty and hilarious: the various dishes on the wedding menu-whose names are given at the beginning of each unit of verse in Italian in Hebrew letters - are humorously celebrated in their appearance and nutritional qualities, exalted for their specific textures, and vividly described bjf their arousing smells. By means of personification, some of them speak in the first person, blowing their own trumpets, exhorting the guests to eat up, or simply joining in the general merry-making in honor of the happy couple.

In this essay, I propose to analyze Modena's "menu in verse" from both the historical and the literary perspectives by placing it in the contexts of contemporary alimentary and dining habits, sumptuarj/ regulations, and baroque culture. …

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